Preschooler talking and listening: what to expect
At 3-4 years, preschoolers learn a lot of new words. They’re using sentences of 3-5 words or even more. Other people understand what they’re saying most of the time. They can point to parts of pictures – for example, the nose of a cow – and name common objects.
By 4 years, preschoolers speak in sentences of around 5-6 words or more. Other people understand them nearly all the time. They also understand most things you say and can usually follow instructions with 2-3 steps.
And by 5 years, preschoolers can speak more clearly. They know, understand and use even more words, often in more complex sentences of up to 9 words.
Preschoolers can use their language skills to:
- talk about things that are beyond their personal lived experience, like dinosaurs, rocket ships and fairy princesses
- talk about the past and the future
- give reasons for why things happen
- listen to stories read aloud and talk about the characters and actions
- engage in pretend play with other children
- enjoy word play, funny stories and silly rhymes
- talk about emotions.
Listening to preschoolers
When you listen to your child, you send the message that what they think and say is important to you. This message builds your child’s confidence in their ability to communicate with others. It’s also a great way to build your relationship with your child.
Here’s how to listen – and show your child that you’re listening:
- Stop what you’re doing and give your full attention to your child whenever you can.
- Get down to your child’s level and make eye contact.
- Tune in to your child’s body language. You can learn a lot about what your child thinks and feels by watching for smiles, frowns, eye contact, movement towards or away from you, and so on.
- If you’re not sure what your child is trying to tell you, summarise it back to them to check that you understand what they’re saying.
- Use responses that show you’re interested. For example, you can say, ‘Really?’, ‘Go on’ or ‘And then what happened?’
- Nod, smile and be affectionate when your child is talking.
- Avoid interrupting your child if they say or use a word incorrectly. Instead, you can use the word correctly when you respond. For example, if your child says, ‘I like pasghetti for dinner’, you can say, ‘Yes, spaghetti is very yummy’.
Your child loves to talk to you! If you can’t listen right now or you need to stop listening during a long story, let your child know. For example, ‘We’re almost at preschool. Would you like to finish the story quickly now or tell me the rest later?’ Make sure to follow through later.
Talking to preschoolers
Your child can use and understand a lot of words at this age, but they still might have trouble understanding what you mean sometimes.
Here are ideas to help you talk and communicate clearly with your child:
- Face your child, speak clearly, and make sure they can easily hear you.
- Use your body language and gestures to help your child understand what you mean.
- Make sure your body language and facial expressions match what you’re saying. For example, smile and make eye contact when you tell your child that you love them.
- Try to say exactly what you mean. It might be best to avoid exaggeration or sarcasm because this can sometimes hurt or worry preschoolers.
- Try to use concrete words that represent things that your child can see, hear, taste, smell and touch, like ‘house’ or ‘chair’. Try to use abstract words like ‘fear’ or ‘truth’ only when you have time to explain them.
- If your child can’t understand what you’re saying, repeat the same message in a couple of different ways. For example, ‘Put your bag on the hook’ and ‘Pick up your bag and hang it on the hook’.
- Help your child learn ‘why’ by explaining things when you’re speaking. For example, ‘We don’t ride our bikes on the road because a car might not see us, and it might accidentally bump into us’.
Developing preschooler conversation skills
You can help your child learn and practise conversation skills just by having plenty of conversations with them. Following your child’s lead and talking about things they’re interested in is a good way to start.
Here are more ways to help your child develop their conversation skills:
- Read and talk about picture books with your child. This will help you understand your child’s thoughts, ideas and feelings.
- Encourage your child to take turns to talk during your conversations, and gently remind your child that only one person can speak at a time. This develops good conversation skills and builds your child’s listening skills.
- Explain to your child that in some situations, they have to listen quietly while other people talk. A good example might be group time at preschool.
- Model turn-taking in your conversations with others.
- Give your child specific praise and encouragement for good communicating. For example, ‘Thank you for letting me finish what I was saying’.
Reading and storytelling with preschoolers is good for their talking, listening and communication skills. It gets your child familiar with new words and ways of using language. And if you talk about books and stories with your child, you can help your child practise conversation skills too.
Answering preschooler questions
Children learn by asking questions. When you take your child’s questions seriously and take the time to give a real answer, you encourage your child to keep asking questions. This helps your child to learn about the world as they grow and develop.
If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, you can find out the answer together. For example, you could say ‘That’s a really interesting question – let’s see if we can find out. Can we ask someone we know? Can we look on the internet or find a book at the library?’